Greenwashing – what does it mean to be ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in the beauty industry?

In this day and age, it’s no surprise to hear that brands might be doing some trickery when it comes to promoting their products. We’ve all seen it before – brands making claims and promises that invariably fail to deliver. These subtle (and not so subtle) marketing tactics have been around for years and are usually what determines the success of the product. However, as consumers are becoming more savvy and reading between the lines, marketers are becoming even more clever when it comes to marketing a product. 

Enter Greenwashing. This is a term used to describe when a brand makes claims to be green and natural through their marketing, yet when you delve a little deeper, chances are, there is more effort put into the perception rather than the actual practice. It’s when a brand promotes their products using unsubstantiated or misleading claims that lead the customer to believe that their products are natural, green or organic (when it actual fact, they’re only partially, or in worst cases, not at all). 

Brands are strategically choosing words on labelling based purely on marketability and because the governing of this practice can be tricky, some brands are getting away with it. That’s why it’s important for consumers to make informed choices, and when it comes to package labels, don’t take everything at face value.   

A great example is the term ‘natural’ which is seen on a lot of beauty and skincare products. For those that are mindful about what they’re putting on their skin, the word ‘natural’ can be the thing that gets the purchase across the line. However, unfortunately, the term natural is often misused, and in some cases can mean that only a small percentage of a product’s ingredients are plant-based or what was originally ‘natural’, has now in fact gone through a production process which now results in a less-than-natural form. 

Another typical example is ‘naturally derived’, which in essence refers to ingredients that are derived from nature but the process means that it is then delivered in an unnatural form (so it sounds natural but may be laden in chemicals). The phrase basically implies that components once came from a natural source but they have been altered in some way, usually delivering a chemically laden form of the original ingredient. 

‘Organic’ is another term that is largely unregulated, with many brands claiming their products are organic however this might not always be the case. A good way to tell is by looking out for the Certified Organic logo which guarantees there has been organic ingredients used. However, the reason why many brands may not have yet received this certification is because the process can be expensive and take a long time.  

Another claim that can create a misleading perception is ‘Dermatologist Approved’. This obviously sounds great in theory because who wouldn’t want to buy a product which has been endorsed by a professional, however, unfortunately, the case is normally that the dermatologist have usually been paid a nice little fee to promote the brand and its products. Which then means there’s usually little, if any, standardised testing gone into the product (meaning it could potentially be harmful for the skin). Brands also make the ambiguous claim of ‘Dermatologically tested’, without any further information on how this testing was done, the sample size, how it was performed or whether it was successful or not.  

Many natural brands make a lot of noise in regards to the toxic chemicals that aren’t contained in their products; such as parabens, petrochemicals, phthalates, sulphates etc. This is a great way of shifting the focus to what’s not in their products, rather than discussing what actually is. A lot of the time, these same brands contain ‘toxic chemicals’ or substitutes which are either as bad or even worse. An example of this is when brands will replace a fragrance with essential oils which have the potential to be far more sensitising to the skin than the fragrance (this is just so they can claim the ‘natural’ high ground). It’s like adding chlorine or arsenic to your product and saying they are good for us because they are natural. 

There’s also the commonly used statements like ‘Chemical Free’ or ‘Toxin Free’. These are crazy statements especially if you consider that ingredients like water (common in most skincare products) is actually a chemical made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Then consider that some people get toxic shock from the consumption of water. 

Then there’s the production process, which is rife with confusion. Some brands are claiming they use green practices and rightfully so, however when you delve a little deeper, it could mean that they as a brand will do this, but they may have sourced ingredients from third party suppliers that do not. This is a big grey area and whilst the brand itself is making a claim that is correct, somewhere down the line the practices are not green, meaning as a consumer you may not have made that purchase had you known. 

The beauty industry is unfortunately rife with unsubstantiated and misleading claims, so it’s important to make yourself more informed when it comes to the purchases you make. To avoid being greenwashed, look for brands who are displaying 100% transparency in their marketing. Also do your research and get informed about the brand, their products and their company practices. Try not to take everything at face value and if in doubt, ask the brand itself. They have a duty of care to tell you the truth and it’s your right as a consumer to delve deeper. There are also some great resources online who break down skincare labelling terminology and shed further light on the grey areas. As a consumer it is important to be aware of what you’re purchasing and whilst it can be a confusing world out there, you have a right to know what you’re putting on your skin.  

Chatty Chung: So what’s a typical extraction process that beauty companies use? And what kind of chemicals and alcohols are these ‘natural’ ingredients immersed in during this process? 

This really just depends on the ingredients that they are trying to derive. For example, there’s maceration, steam or hydro-distillation, pressing, decoction, infusion, percolation and Soxhlet extraction. Biologi uses a unique extraction technique that no other brand uses. This enables us to extract 100% of the plants active ingredient and keep it stable in the bottle. Using this revolutionary extraction system; Biologi mimics the plant’s internal closed process to extract serums that work in the bottle as they do in their unique cellular environment. This means we are the only skincare brand in the world that offers 100% natural stable vitamin-C. Vitamin C is a great example of an ingredient that brands will often claim is natural, but what they are really offering is Ascorbic Acid. What people don’t realise is that some processes to make Ascorbic Acid use Acetone (nail polish remover), which people then put on their faces! Another example which we’ve discussed before is Micellar Water where they typically use Glycols. Glycols were created for industrial purposes and have found their way into cosmetics. To understand this better, Car Coolant is produced from Glycols and again, if people knew that they probably wouldn’t want to put it on their face. Many people assume with the title of the ingredient that Micellar is just a form of water so it can’t be dangerous, but that is not the case.

What does ‘Certified Organic’ entail? And do these organizations have different levels of stringency? 

Certified organic means that a company has been audited by an organic certification certifier. Here in Australia there is the ACO, OFC and NASA etc. These organisations offer various organic certifications depending upon the product. Many brands claim their products are organic however the Certified Organic logo guarantees there has been organic ingredients used. However if a brand does not have this claim, that doesn’t mean that their product isn’t organic. What it likely means is that they may not have yet received this certification because the process can be expensive and take a long time. Recently, the method of how cosmetic organic brands will be certified has changed. 

From the 1st July 2019 COSMOS certification will only be available to brands. From my understanding only the ACO is offering this certification and many brands will need to conform or lose organic certification. COSMOS has been developed for cosmetic brands wanting organic status and is far more extensive on the ingredients in the product. If the product contains 100 to >95% organic certified ingredients (less water content) it can be labelled COSMOS organic. From there, if the product ingredients are <95% of organic certified ingredients then the words COSMOS natural can be used indicating the organic ingredients on the back of the label. This change will have a huge effect on the natural / organic brand sector as most will lose the word organic off their label as they will now fall into the Natural category.   

What negative effects can we expect from using essential oils? 

Most essential oils contain known sensitisers that over time when applied to the skin either directly or formulated in a product will cause sensitisation and skin derma-logical problems, such as reddening, itchiness and pigmentation to name a few. Peppermint and lavender oils are two essential oils that are used widely in skin care products claiming to be for sensitive skins. These oils contain linalool, limonene & geraniol at over 50% of the oil and should never be used in any skin care product. There are many other essential oils that contain over 90% sensitisers. Natural is not always better and can be worse or far more toxic than other ingredients.

Read More: This is Why Your Skin has become Sensitised, Alongside the Rest of the World

Ross MacDougald

Ross Macdougald is an Australian Cosmetic Chemist who is the founder of Biologi, phytoverse and Plant Extracts.

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